Patrick Matthew

Patrick Matthew, circa 1790.

A recent paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society by Michael Weale of Kings College in London was not a shot across the bow of evolutionary iconography, hoping to dislodge the nearly verbatim disclosure by Charles Darwin on the mechanics of evolution in the 19th century.  In Patrick Matthew’s law of natural selection, Weale augments the awareness of evolutionary thinking prior to Darwin’s little book of 1859.  That the idea of evolution was abound in salons and in whispers of the time.  But, unlike previous suggestions of evolutionary tinkering, Patrick Matthew actually provided a natural selection model, an albeit brief one.  “Matthew proves” Weale writes “that the idea [of mechanistic evolution] was accessible to someone from the outside the usual naturalist circles.”  Nor did anyone “appreciate…his version of it.”  Obviously Matthew (1790-1874) didn’t  use the same words of Darwin to express his idea – he preferred “circumstance-adaptive law”, among others.

Part of the unfamiliarity of Matthew to most is that he was not a naturalist.  An early 19th century landowner, dabbler in politics and agronomy, his immediate access to scientific discourse was limited.  But, part of the problem Matthew had, though I doubt he would have thought of it as a problem, is a trend that is even more current now, than at any time in history: The problem of scientific marketing.  His book was a catchall of ideas, reflective of the tenor of his class, and was titled with an unimaginative verbiage, and unreflective of the subjects he touched upon.  Further, if anyone were to go back in time and review early 19th century ideas, Matthew’s book would likely be missed.  The title On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting (1831) is unremarkable and doesn’t acknowledge his original ideas.  In today’s metrics of science, even Weale acknowledges as so.  “It seems that he [Matthew] is an object lesson in the perils of low-impact publishing”.

The serendipitous nature of Matthew and his less than stellar title comes by way of another recent article by Charles Fox (of University of Kentucky) and others in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Their recent paper, The Relationship between manuscript title structure and success: editorial decisions and citation performance for an ecological journal could summon the events from Matthews’ efforts, a convergence of thoughts.  Though Fox and company utilize materials within scientific periodicals, not general literature, their research does show a trend that an articles “success” (= more citations) are ones “whose titles emphasize broader conceptual or comparative issues [and thus] fare better…than do papers” that are too specific, or with “organism-specific titles”.  By todays measure, Matthew’s book title would have been too broad to capitalize on its relevance (if we measure relevance by number of citations only), yet in its belabored length it is too scattered to capture any sort of audience.

One could ponder for a few moments, after reading Matthew’s 1831 book, for a better, more meaningful title.  Something catchy, yet revealing of its moments of originality.  But, this is perfect optical hindsight.  As such, we must be content that icons are rarely perfect, or original.  Yet, their ‘stellarness’ is the sum of their parts, made grander by the breadth of study. An ability that is unique to only a few.